How can we make Europe’s food system sustainable?

Food insecurity and sustainability are among the most significant global challenges facing humanity today. They are linked to a range of other challenges including malnutrition, biodiversity loss, climate change, soil degradation, and water quality.  

The new SAPEA report on Sustainable food system for European Union” addresses these questions and considers how a socially just and sustainable food system for the EU can be best defined and attained.  

The report was coordinated by ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, and was written by a multidisciplinary group of 15 leading scientists nominated by academies across Europe. This report was requested by the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission and it informs their Scientific Opinion, which contains a set of recommendations for the European Commission. The two documents were published recently. 

We are talking with Peter Jackson, the chair of the SAPEA expert group who wrote the report. Peter Jackson is a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield in the UK and co-Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food. 


Transcript of the interview 

Good morning. Today we will discuss food sustainability and a new SAPEA report on that topic. We are talking with Peter Jackson, the Chair of the SAPEA expert group who wrote the report. Peter is a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield in the UK and the co-Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food. Peter, thank you for being here with us!  And the first question I wanted to ask you is that the report says that a shift to a sustainable food system in Europe is necessary. Could you tell us why?  

Yes, thank you. The current food system is widely acknowledged to be unsustainable, and that’s because of a number of reasons.  The food system is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for more than a third of total global greenhouse gas emissions.  It’s also a major contributor to soil depletion, to soil quality impoverishment, and a rage of other ecological consequences, including the loss of biodiversity.  

For all these reasons we think the food system is unsustainable. It’s also unsustainable in terms of food waste: as much of a third of the food we produce is lost to human consumption at various points along the supply chain. And lastly, in terms of food security, there’s been an alarming increase in the number of people needing access to emergency forms of food aid, such as food banks.  So across all those criteria, it’s fair to say that the current food system is unsustainable.  

And how can we make this shift towards sustainability happen? What does evidence say about it?   

Conventional approach to solving food system challenges is framed in terms of sustainable intensification.  And that means using agritech and other scientific interventions to grow more food using less land and fewer inputs.  Others disagree with that approach, and suggest we need to focus on agroecology, or organic farming, or to support a return to more local and seasonal food supplies.  We clearly also need a concerted approach to reduction of food loss and food waste, but others would also say we need to explore alternative forms of protein, or a move to more plant-based diets.  

So there are a whole range of solutions being advocated, and our report tries to weigh up the scientific evidence for one or more of those approaches.  Generally though, we support a system-wide and radical change to the current food system, exploring all those options.  

The SAPEA report that you worked on sets down key messages for policy-makers, which are then used by the Scientific Advisors to develop recommendations for the European Commission. But this time, we wanted to ask about your personal opinion as an expert: what would be the most important step towards a sustainable food system in Europe?   

It’s actually hard to separate more a personal opinion from the conclusions we came to in the report as a whole. But our main approach has been to suggest that no single actor, or single action, holds the key to transitioning to a more just and sustainable food system.  

We argue in the report that we need to combine so-called hard and soft measures. So the hard measures would include taxation and legislation, and the softer measures would include consumer education, health campaigns and behaviour change approaches. 

But we suggest that the evidence leads us to the conclusion that combination of hard and soft measures is likely to be more effective than single measures taken on their own.  

SAPEA is known for bringing together scientists from all disciplines and across Europe. What was it like to work in such group? Was there anything that surprised you in this way of working? 

It was actually a pleasure to work with members of the Working Group. We worked very well together and were able to combine a whole series of different disciplinary approaches, including psychology and sociology, geography, economics, and some natural science. 

So the lessons on the whole were very positive, in terms of collaboration across disciplinary boundaries. Where there were differences, they were mostly resolved through mutual understanding and cooperative learning.  So for example some would advocate quantitative others more qualitative approaches, or some might take a more individualistic, psychological approach, whereas others would think more sociologically about the need for addressing collective behaviour and a more social practice approach.  But on the whole we came to a consensus view, the report is signed by all of us collectively, and it was a good lesson I think in terms of the need for interdisciplinary approaches to food system challenges. 

And Advisors to the European Commission have explicitly asked for the social sciences perspective in this report.  Why is that? What makes this perspective so important in this project? 

The scoping paper to which we responded refers to a social science deficit in current approaches to the food system. And by that it argued that across the sciences in general there was good degree of agreement on what was needed, in terms of dietary change for example, or in terms of more sustainable agricultural production. 

But what was lacking was a sense of what works in terms of different policies, and that’s where social science perhaps can contribute most.  So through the systematic review process that underpinned our report, we were able to identify scientific work which had evaluated the effectiveness of different kinds of policies.  And that then provides an evidence-based approach to what works. 

We also used the systematic review process to identify a series of case-studiesof best practice, of things that might work at the local scale or within a single nation, but which might be scaled-up, or rolled out across Europe more generally. 

Well thank you very much! 

Thank you!